Lyfe Kitchen

Notwithstanding the spelling, we were excited to visit the new Lyfe Kitchen in downtown Culver City (9540 W. Washington Blvd.), one of the first locations of a healthy fast-food chain with plans to open 250 restaurants nationwide in the next five years. The extensive vegan portion of the menu, designed by famed chef Tal Ronnen, includes the delicate, flavorful Gardein sausage and Daiya mozzarella ravioli, beautifully plated with kale, broccolini, cherry tomatoes, and basil, and a subtle, creamy kabocha squash risotto, made with farro, kale, carrot, and broccolini. We also loved the grilled artichokes and, for dessert, the apple and quinoa crisp with soy yogurt. The restaurant itself is bright and stylish. Here’s hoping this innovative and ambitious enterprise really does add new life (if not “lyfe”) to the standard American diet.

Delicious dumpling: Ravioli embraces Gardein and Daiya

Faux friends: “Sausage” and “cheese” ravioli

Squash blossoms: Kabocha risotto with farro

Squash racket: Kabocha-farro risotto

Heart of the matter: Grilled artichokes with lemon and aioli

Heart of the matter: Grilled artichokes plus lemon and aioli

Subway

On the right track:  The veggie patty sandwich

On the right track: The veggie patty sandwich

Though frequent dining at Subway can be a sad thing, we have held on to our grudging affection for this ubiquitous fast-food chain, which has fed us when we might otherwise have gone hungry for want of a meat-free alternative. Subway, to be sure, offers only two vegetarian sandwiches, but the deal is sweetened by the “have it your way” setup, which allows customers a choice of bread, cheese, veggies, and condiments. Tonight one of us picked the Veggie Delite, essentially a salad on a roll, adding a slice of Swiss to this otherwise low-fat, low-calorie option; the other went with the veggie patty sandwich (not on the menu), the same concept as Veggie Delite but with a soy-based (though non-vegan) meat analog to fill out the package. Though the bread is a cipher, even toasted, and the patty is a bit rubbery, both are easily lost amid the other flavors, in this case a honey-mustard spread and a vinaigrette drizzled on a tasty heap of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, pickle, “banana” peppers, hot pepper, red onion, and black olives. Perhaps most important, the two sandwiches plus a 20-ounce bottle of Nestea iced tea came to under $10. It’s certainly not the most elegant way to travel, but when you’re looking for a cheap and convenient route to lunch or dinner, Subway will get you there.

Veggie Grill

Could it be seitan? All-American Stack, with kale

Veganism for the masses: All-American Stack, with kale

Veganism for the masses: Carne asada sandwich, with red cabbage slaw

Could it be seitan? Carne asada sandwich, with red cabbage slaw

Chewy: Carrot cake with Tofutti frosting

Chewy: Carrot cake with Tofutti frosting

In the race to bring veganism to the masses, Veggie Grill may well have the leading edge. This rapidly expanding chain has managed the impressive feat of formulating an uncompromisingly dairy-, egg-, and meat-free menu that nonetheless packs them in day and night at our local branch (2025 Wilshire, at 20th St.). Even allowing for Santa Monica’s hypertrophic health consciousness, we are continually gratified by the size and diversity of the crowds, which range from the tattooed young to the most senior of citizens. What’s more, the testimony of friends and neighbors indicates that many of the customers are in fact meat eaters. But how is the food? If we put team loyalty aside, our candid assessment is that a number of items are delicious, particularly the sandwiches, though some of the side dishes, at least, could use more work. Tonight we ordered our favorite entrées, carne asada and the All-American Stack, both centered on strips of Veggie Grill’s proprietary meat substitute, a combination of proteins derived from soy, wheat, and peas. Though the fake meat does not entirely escape the stereotypical rubberiness, it comes close thanks to a deep, savory marinade. More important, the protein strips have a lot of help from the other ingredients. Indeed, the real triumph of the Veggie Grill sandwich is its meticulous layering of flavors. The carne asada, for example, employs a spiced vegan mayo; caramelized onions; raw red onion; lettuce; tomato; cilantro; and a salty, spicy relish of finely chopped carrots, all piled up on a soft whole wheat roll. The All-American Stack boasts thousand island dressing; sweet pickle slices; lettuce; tomato; the aforementioned relish; and, best of all, crisp fried onion rings. In addition to the chorus of flavors, a Veggie Grill sandwich offers the unexpected sensual pleasure of juicy messiness. (You may well need a stack of napkins.) Still, we fear that the same people who wolf down their sandwiches are liable to leave their ostentatiously healthy side dishes on their trays. The chili has an odd, harsh taste. The kale is merely steamed; the only flavors are pungent ginger and a dash of a salty sesame-based condiment. The sweet potato fries are fine, but be sure to ask for them without seasoning to avoid the weird, funky nutritional yeast with which they will otherwise be sprinkled. Finally, beware of the mac-and-cheese, which pairs a nutritional yeasty sauce with quinoa pasta, another alien dish from Planet Vegan. The desserts and some of the soups are better; we particularly like the carrot cake, a moist, chewy square with a sweet, creamy frosting made from margarine and Tofutti cream cheese. All in all, Veggie Grill promises a great leap forward for the vegan cause, and though we ourselves might prefer to be in Little Ethiopia mopping up a spicy lentil stew with injera, we’ll keep cheering it on.

Update: As of May 2014, Veggie Grill is up to 24 restaurants (16 in Southern California, the rest in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State).